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Billionaire donor's climate group plans to punish GOP in 2016

Billionaire Tom Steyer is determined to push climate change to the top of the political agenda in 2016. Can he make Republicans pay for their stance?
In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, smoke rises in this time exposure image from the stacks a coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan. (Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP)
In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, smoke rises in this time exposure image from the stacks a coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan.

NextGen Climate, the environmental super PAC founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, announced plans on Monday to punish Republican presidential candidates who reject the scientific consensus on climate change.

The group spent over $70 million in the 2014 midterms attacking Republican candidates in a number of high-profile Senate races, but were unable to stem the tide in what was ultimately a strong GOP year. On a call with reporters on Monday, NGC chief strategist Chris Lehane declined to provide a specific dollar pledge for the 2016 race, but said that Steyer and his allies would “spend what it takes” to make climate a damaging campaign issue for Republicans.

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Much of the effort will center on linking Republican attacks on climate science, where the overwhelming consensus points towards man-made emissions causing dangerous changes in the environment, to political spending by conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers have pledged to raise upwards of $889 million in the 2016 election cycle, rivaling spending by the two major parties in 2012.

“It is a party that is in essence acquired and purchased by the Koch brothers,” Lehane said.

A spokeswoman for Koch Industries did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Environmental group Greenpeace has accused the Koch network of spending tens of millions of dollars on organizations that work to undermine mainstream climate science. Koch Industries has said it promotes "sound science." 

President Obama has made climate change a top priority in his second term, presiding over a series of major new regulations on emissions as well as a landmark climate agreement with China. Scientists warn that immediate and further action is needed to stave off global warming of 2 degrees or higher by 2100, a tipping point that experts fear would have especially dangerous consequences.

Much of the likely GOP 2016 field has questioned or outright dismissed the idea that human activity is responsible for climate change. Establishment frontrunner Jeb Bush has called himself a “skeptic,” for example, while Senator Ted Cruz recently likened climate activists to “flat-earthers.” 

As a result, Lehane said NGC viewed 2016 as a “crossroads election” that could determine whether “the window will close” on heading off the most worrying scenarios.

"If that happens, the horsemen of the climate change apocalypse will be unleashed by extreme weather,” he said.

According to Lehane, NGC will be headquartered in a “modern day 360-degree high tech war room” in San Francisco and will track GOP candidates, organize activists and protests, and run ads to raise the issue’s visibility. They will maintain “forward operating bases” in Washington, DC as well as early primary states and general election swing states. Part of the strategy will entail highlighting projected consequences of climate change in potential swing states, especially in coastal cities that could be affected by rising sea levels.

A “huge focus” of their campaign efforts will be courting young voters, who they see as most receptive to their message and who are poised to play a larger role in 2016 than they did in the lower turnout midterm elections.

“It’s very difficult to see how the Republican math can work given where they are on this issue and given how young voters care about this issue,” Lehane said.

While Republicans largely avoided electoral consequences in 2014, Lehane claimed NGC had put GOP candidates on the defensive at points and shown that climate science could be used as a political wedge issue. 

“It does raise basic competency questions in terms of whether people will be comfortable giving you the keys to the White House,” he said.